Wednesday, 26 October 2011

The Germans Are Coming!

Hard on the heels of the Viennese exhibition, the NGV is about to give us another treat: an extensive collection of avant-garde art from Germany, spanning the first three decades of the 20th century. The exhibition is currently at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and will open here on 25th November.

Sparing no effort or expense, I selflessly travelled all the way to Sydney last weekend in order to go and preview the exhibition for our members. L.P. Hartley remarked that the past is a foreign country - they do things differently there. The same can be said of Sydney. For one thing, the taxi drivers are not afflicted wth B.O. and they know where they are going. I flagged down one of this fine body of men (and women, for all I know) outside my hotel, just like they do in the movies, and he took me straight to the Art Gallery with no prompting.

Felix Nussbaum's painting gave its name to the exhibition: "The Mad Square - Modernity in German Art 1910-37". These were tumultuous years, socially and politically. The eponymous "Mad Square" refers to Berlin's famous Pariser Platz, a place that embodies the crazy and fantastic zeitgeist of the times.

The Mad Square is not only a place but also evokes the edginess of the times - the atmosphere of the exhibition rooms made me think of of Joel Grey's sly, louche Master of Ceremonies in "Cabaret", Peter Lorre's sinister paedophile in "M" and Walter Sickert's "Ripper" paintings.

In the time span covered by the exhibition, Germany went through the horrors of WW1, followed by economic disaster, the political turmoil of the abdication of the Kaiser, the establishment of the decadent Weimar Republic and the gradual rise of Fascism. All this is embodied in the range of artistic experimentation and creative freedom that saw artists move away from figurative work towards inceasingly abstract forms.

To give an overview of the scope of the exhibition: the starting point of the show is the Expressionism that flourished until the beginning of the world war, moving on to Dada by 1916, which was overtaken by the golden age of Walter Gropius' Bauhaus school of art and design from 1919 until its end in 1933, when the Nazis raided the school and closed it down. The Bauhaus was essentially a school of design that sought to fuse the aesthetics of fine arts with the technical skills of crafts. The exhibition includes some beautiful examples of furniture, ceramics and textiles.

There is a very interesting collection of photographs and drawings representing the brief period of Constructivism in 1922 and '23, that saw art fused with technology - lots of photographs of machines.

The show moves on to the art of the 1920s - the sophisticated metropolis of Berlin providing a rich source of inspiration. Indeed, Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" is screened on a continuous loop and there are lovely contemporary film posters. Not only of "Metropolis" but also of "M" and of "The Cabinet of Dr Caligari". The latter, with its marvellous expressionist sets, is, for my money, the greatest movie of the silent era, and incidentally the one that hooked me on the beauty and magic of film beyond Hollywood and Disney. I first saw it at the impressionable age of eight, when my Auntie Ann who was babysitting me, took me with her to the local Film Society.

The decadent Berlin of this era is best described by Christopher Isherwood in his series of "Berlin Stories". Nothing was beyond the pale in the brothels, clubs and gambling dens; it would have been fertile soil for Krafft-Ebbing and his colleagues. From this section two pictures encapsulate the atmosphere of the city for me. In The Sex Murderer by Heinrich Davringhausen, I like the way he references Manet's Olympia and I am amused by the clichéd bogeyman lurking under the bed: he looks more terrified than his intended victim! Maybe he's new at the sex fiend trade.

I was also amused by The Powder Puff (George Grosz) - the wall text explains that the prostitute powdering her friend's bottom is helping her get ready for the next client. Clearly an upmarket establishment: each client gets clean sheets and a freshly powdered bottom!

By the mid-1920s, there was a move towards Objectivism, returning to more traditional modes of representation and away from modernity. In this area there is a fascinating range of photographic portraits of contemporary figures: Otto Dix, Max Beckmann and Paul Klee among them.

One of my favourite parts of the exhibition is the "Degenerate Art", singled out by the Nazis as representative of the moral decay and mental deficiency that had infiltrated modern art. There is a fine crop of works by moral degenerates and mental defectives such as Picasso, Max Beckmann, Franz Marc, Kandinsky, Paul Klee and others of their disgusting ilk. I also liked the posters advertising the exhibition of Degenerate Art that the Nazis had put on so that the German people could see for themselves the horror and feel the fear-and-loathing of it all. That backfired bigtime!

After a bit of lunch and a restorative cup of peppermint tea in the Members' Room (why doesn't the NGV's Members' Room do lunch?) I went to have a look at the permanent collection. I haven't been to the museum since the completion of the new contemporary galleries, so I thought I would suss them out. I saw some old favourites: for some reason I love the fat lady in the yellow dress by Matthew Smith - I was delighted to see her again, near another of my favourites: the still life by Giorgio Morandi.

There is some delightful Op Art and Pop Art that takes you right back to the Sixties, and I was fascinated by a wall-size abstract on a reflective surface, that caused me and the room behind me to become part of the picture. There was a dead clown lying on the floor at my feet, but I didn't let that spoil my day.

Three sculptures commanded my attention: Killing Time by Ricky Swallow, an exquisitely detailed carving of a table on which is displayed all the sea creatures that he can remember killing and eating in his life;

 The Comforter by Patricia Piccinini, a disturbing figure of what appears at first glance to be a teenage girl cuddling a baby, but on closer inspection you see that she is as hirsute as a Turkish navvy and the "baby" is her arms is a torso with a pair of baby feet at one end and a bunch of huge fingers at the other. Repellent yet mesmerising!

Spyrogyra by Tony Cragg is a ten foot tall spiral with bottles seeming to grow out of it. The black and white reproduction won't do it justice: the subtle shading of green, white and brown bottles with just the occasional blue evokes the embodiment of plant life: Christmas trees, pine forests, the waving tendrils of a spirogyra, last seen under a microscope in high school biology class!

As I was leaving, two rows of large photographs divided by fluorescent tubes caught my eye, and I recognised a portrait of Hannie Schaft, the sixteen year old Dutch girl who was shot by the Gestapo for helping the Resistance in Haarlem. I couldn't think what Hannie is doing in Sydney - she is not a well-known figure outside Holland. I only happen to know about her because I have spent time in Haarlem. So I wandered over to have a closer look.

The installation is called Seven people who died the day I was born – April 18 1945. It is by Peter Kennedy and he uses it to illustrate the way in which individual lives are connected to political and historical events. I found it interesting and thought-provoking.
If you find yourself in Sydney, do try and spend a couple of hours in the Art Gallery of NSW: they have a marvellous collection and you will get VIP treatment of you flash your NGV card!

Thursday, 20 October 2011


At the Flower and Garden show (where the WAS exhibit outshone everyone else's!) I noticed how many artists chose roses to paint
Ask anyone to name a flower and the first one to come to mind will probably be the rose. Their scent, their colour and their beauty entrance us. Most modern perfumes contain a trace of rose in their fragrance composition. A red rose is the ultimate symbol of love: on St Valentine's Day it is impossible to get hold of a red rose unless you have placed an order days in advance.

Perhaps the most famous rose of all time is the Peace Rose, one of the most beloved roses in the world. A warm yellow and pink-tipped bloom with a delicate, sweet scent, it has been the top choice of rose-growers in all countries since it was created just after World War II. There is a very interesting book by Antonia Ridge about the creation of the Peace Rose: "For the love of a Rose".

Rose leaf imprints have been found in 35 million year-old fossils in the Colorado Rockies, and roses are mentioned in Asian documents from as early as 3000 BC. The Greeks adorned their altars with roses and offered them to the gods. The Romans, who would feel right at home in Las Vegas, in their turn went right over the top with roses as a luxury item: at banquets, the guests would be sprinkled with rose water and have rose oil rubbed on their bodies. The floor, walls and ceiling would be carpeted in roses and rose-scented wine would be served. Talk about tacky!

In Alexandria, Cleopatra - famous for her lack of restraint - ordered a carpet of roses 30cm thick for her first meeting with Antony. One can only hope that everybody wore stout boots and thornproof leggings for the occasion.

The remedial powers of the rose were much prized: in ancient China roses were deemed effective for dropsy and constipation, the Egyptians chewed rose petals for toothache and in 17th Century Europe powdered rose petals were used to stop bleeding and to cure headaches.

Recently it has been found that rose flowers contain Vitamins A, C, and P and taken in capsules can relieve stress, depression and insomnia. It is not even necessary to eat them: a dozen red roses can make you feel great just by appearing on your doorstep.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

The Couch Potato Takes to the Streets

In the fascinating DVD "The National Gallery's Grand Tour", art historian Tim Marlow takes us on a walk round the streets of London's Soho, Covent Garden and Chinatown. In the streets and alleyways, in the most unexpected and unusual places, we discover 44 of the National Gallery's most famous works of art.

Complete with frames and wall texts, these superb full-size reproductions delight passers-by, who stop to look, to whip out their 'phones for a picture and sometimes to call the number on the wall text for the audio-info.

In this DVD, we take a fresh look at the paintings in their temporary new hanging spaces. It's interesting to see them in a completely new context and Mr Marlow is an engaging and very knowledgable guide. The West End has become a giant art gallery: Vincent's Sunflowers is on a sidewalk café wall, Caravaggio's Salomé hangs next to the door of a sex shop. Stubbs' Whistlejacket prances on the wide expanse of a warehouse wall. Seurat's Bathers at Asniéres are sunning themselves beside the staff entrance to Hamley's and Holbein's Ambassadors solemnly regard the passers-by in Berwick Street, Soho. I wonder what they make of it all!

Amazingly, only four of the pictures disappeared overnight during the twelve weeks of the exhibition, including Belshazzar's Feast by Rembrandt. The theft of that huge work was captured on the ubiquitous CCTV cameras and is reproduced frame by frame in the book "Tiger Seen on Shaftesbury Avenue".

This book is a kind of catalogue of this unusual exercise: it is a National Gallery publication that documents the exhibition and viewers' effusive reactions to it. It features images of the paintings taken by passers-by, including Rousseau's "Surprised "on Shaftesbury Avenue. The book quotes insightful and witty comments from various members of the public and recounts amusing anecdotes regarding people's reactions.

The National Gallery called this exhibition The Grand Tour. It celebrates the richness and diversity of the Gallery's permanent collection and its aim was to encourage people to visit the genuine works. In this it was successful, attracting not only tourists but many Londoners who had been unaware of the visual treasures that are available, free of charge, in their marvellous city.

Here in Marvellous Melbourne our very own NGV also has a wonderful collection of paintings and we are extremely lucky that the permanent collection is on view free of charge. Unlike many international art museums, where you have to hand over an arm and a leg before they let you clap eyes on so much as a small watercolour by a Sunday painter.

The NGV's annual blockbuster exhibitions of loaned masterpieces are great, but wouldn't it be a treat if our own masterpieces could go walkabout in our city? How exciting to come across Cleopatra in an alleyway or meet Dame Nellie Melba in Collins Street!

I borrowed the DVD from the Eastern Region Library system (Ringwood, Knox et al) and the book is available at the Whitehorse-Manningham Libraries.

Friday, 30 September 2011

Identity Crisis at the NGV

My fellow-Enid Blyton aficionados will know that her books often have a chapter called "A Shock and a Surprise". However, not one of the Famous Five (nor indeed their dog) could have sustained a greater shock and surprise than I received at the NGV last week.

The Gentle Reader will remember an article I wrote some time ago about the charming portrait of the princess Sophie, Fille de France, daughter of Louis XV. She is one of my favourites and as I ambled through the room where she sits, looking up from her book all pink-cheeked and pretty, I caught sight of the wall label next to her: "Louise-Marie de France", it brazenly declared, "formerly believed to be a likeness of her sister, Sophie." Impudent hussy! Usurping her sister's place!

Fruitlessly rummaging in my handbag for smelling salts, I was forced to retire to the Members' Room for a restorative tea and biscuit. Anyway, I am not going to do all that research again. Everything I told you about Sophie no doubt goes for Louise Marie as well - except that Louise became a nun while Sophie just lived to a spinsterish old age with her sisters. It must be hard when you are so well-born that nobody except a king is considered a suitable husband. Mind you, husbands being what they were in those days, perhaps that old snob Louis' daughters were better off without them.

Another aristocratic lady in the NGV with a bit of an identity problem, is Lucrezia Borgia. Lucrezia's father, Pope Alexander VI, had no problem marrying his daughter off to his best political advantage, and indeed he did so three times. Each of her husbands seemed to die just when it would really have been more convenient for His Holiness had Lucrezia been free to marry someone else.

The portrait in the NGV was painted about 1520, when Lucrezia was married to her third husband, the Duke of Ferrara. (Soon to be the late Duke.)

The painting was acquired by the NGV in 1965, through the Felton Bequest. For forty-three years it was titled "Portrait of a Youth", by an unknown Italian artist. It was only in 2008 that the NGV announced the portrait to be that of Lucrezia Borgia, and that the painter is famed Renaissance artist Dosso Dossi.

Not only identity crisis but gender confusion as well! Definitely not a tea-and-biscuit shock: this is more your vodka-and-valium type of situation.

I for one am delighted to welcome Dossi's Lucrezia to the NGV and I don't miss "The Youth" and his unknown Italian painter at all. I have to say, reluctantly, that she is a bit of a minger. Not as beautiful as legend has it. But then, all princesses are called beautiful and Lucrezia, if not an actual princess, was the nearest thing to a princess that Rome had at the time.

Apparently it is the dagger in her hand that led to the belief that the sitter was a man. However, on closer study it was decided that the subject is more likely to be a woman: the myrtle bush and flowers are symbolic references to Venus. The dagger refers to Lucretia, the heroine of ancient Rome, who stuck a dagger into her heart after she was raped, thus preserving the honour of her family. (Wouldn't the honour of her family have been better preserved had she stuck the dagger into the rapist's heart instead?)

I particularly looked at the Dossi portrait because I am enjoying "The Borgias", a TV mini-series of doubtful historical accuracy, in which Jeremy Irons does a louche and sinister turn as the Pope, and Lucrezia is played by the very beautiful Holliday Grainger, who would never have been mistaken for a young man!

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Meret Oppenheim

Meret Oppenheim
I first became aware of Meret Oppenheim when I was about five years old. For some reason my mother took me with her to the art class she was teaching. Her subject that day was Surrealism, and she had some reproductions which she put in turn on an easel in front of the class to illustrate her talk.

I was given some crayons and told to sit quietly at a little table, which I did, until I happened to look up and see a picture of a furry cup and saucer, complete with a teaspoon, yet. I remember the horror to this day. Tea from that cup! I could just feel that wet, slimy fur on my lips and how the hairs would catch in my teeth if I put that teaspoon in my mouth. I freaked. Didn't get taken to school again.

Object: Breakfast in Fur

Meret was only 22 years old in 1936, when she created this memorable piece of art - once seen, never forgotten! "Object: Fur Breakfast" became an icon of the Surrealist movement, endlessly reproduced on posters and coasters, like Dali's "Persistence of Memory" and Magritte's "The Great War": the bowler-hatted man with a green apple covering his face.
Magritte: The Great War

"Object" was an overnight sensation at Surrealist exhibitions in both Paris and New York, and was immediately snapped up by the Museum of Modern Art.

Dali: The Persistence of Memory

In the same year, Meret created another important Surrealist work: "Mein Kindermadchen" (My Nanny) - a pair of high-heeled shoes, tied together, decorated with paper frills like a trussed chicken, and presented on a silver tray. The piece is full of latent eroticism. The rounded heels look like buttocks, evoking the image of a bound, nude woman on her back, legs apart.

Oppenheim: Mein Kindermadchen
With this image, Meret was raising questions about the way women were regarded as mere objects in the male-dominated art world. The Surrealists, mainly older men, surrounded themselves with women a generation younger than themselves, who were important to them as muses and lovers, but not taken seriously as artists. They were adored as the Surrealist ideal of the child-woman: sexual beings who inspired creativity.

At age 20, Meret was already a "muse", celebrated by the Surrealists as the "fairy woman whom all men desire". She was on intimate terms with Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamps and André Breton. Man Ray used her as the nude model for a series of photographs titled Erotique Voilée.

These photographs say a lot about the gender dynamics within the Surrealist movement. In the best-known one, Meret stands behind the wheel of a printing press, a black hoop round her neck, her eyes enigmatically downcast. Her arm is held up, palm gesturing outward to the viewer. The hand and arm are covered with printer's ink. The gesture ambiguously seems to ward off approaches while defiantly displaying the stain. Her pubic region is obscured by a blatantly phallic wooden handle which protrudes from the printer's wheel in front of her.

The acclaim that "Object: Fur Breakfast", and to a lesser extent, "Mein Kindermadchen", received, catapulted Meret into overnight fame when she was really too young to cope with the spotlight. Not unlike many young footballers of today! Many art historians feel that this spectacular early success blighted her future career - she was constantly trying too hard to live up to her early triumph.

It was not helpful that several of her fellow-Surrealists, perhaps with a touch of envy at the success of a mere young female, frequently tried to disparage and trivialise her. She lost confidence, failed to finish projects and even destroyed many works.

In the 1950s she seemed to come to terms with the pressure of expectations engendered by her almost mythical status as the quintessential Surrealist. She went on to create a rich and varied body of work: she designed objects, wrote film scripts and poetry, made masks and costumes. She set up a studio in Berne and became a source of inspiration for many younger artists.

She died of a heart attack at age 72, on the very day that her latest book of poems and etchings was launched.

Meret Oppenheim contributed greatly to the recognition of women as artists in their own right.

Monday, 4 July 2011

Rosalba Carriera

With so many of our talented members working in pastels, I thought it would be a good idea to showcase that pioneer of pastel portaiture, Rosalba Carriera.

Rosalba Carriera painted almost as many selfportraits as Rembrandt. Many show her as a very attractive young woman, but for some reason, "Winter", showing her at the age of 56 and wearing white fur, is the one that has become synonymous with her.

She was born in Venice in 1675 - the daughter of the steward to a noble house and a lacemaker. Her father realised that his three daughters would have to earn their own living, so he gave them the best education he could. Rosalba and her sisters studied Italian, French and Latin. All three were accomplished musicians, Rosalba playing the violin and harpsichord.

She was still very young when she started drawing patterns for her mother to use in her lacemaking. Venice was always a tourist magnet, as it still is today, and Rosalba turned her talent to decorating snuffboxes for the tourist trade. At first she painted pretty patterns, but hit on the idea of "personalising" the snuffboxes by painting miniature portraits on the lids.

Her miniatures were in great demand, and she soon dispensed with the snuffboxes and concentrated on executing orders for miniature portraits. She pioneered the use of ivory rather than vellum for miniatures - an innovation that was popular with the public and copied by other artists. Nobody gave any thought to the unfortunate pachyderms or picketed her studio. The Animal Liberationists are never there when you need them!

Rosalba moved on to pastel portraiture, and indeed was a pioneer in that field. She pioneered more than just her chosen medium - until then, male artists were regarded as the professionals; women were considered to be mere hobbyists. Early in her career, Rosalba, as a woman, was often offered payment in kind: gloves or embroidered sachets, rather than money, by people who looked upon her as something less than a "real artist".

However, her portraits were in great demand. A Carriera portrait became a must-have for prominent foreign visitors to Venice, diplomats and the nobility. No more talk of the little woman hobbyist - she was regarded with respect by her fellow artists. The great Watteau paid her the ultimate compliment by asking her to paint his portrait: the very portrait which is most commonly used today to illustrate any article about him.

Rosalba's portraits were done in the rococo style and were almost always bust length, the sitter's head facing the viewer and the body turned slightly away. She liked to spend time with her subjects, getting to know them. She made preliminary sketches and took a great deal of trouble to reproduce the textures and fabrics accurately. One of her most recognizable techniques was to drag the flat side of a chalk over a contrasting color to simulate lace.

Perhaps her rendering of the sitters' faces was not quite as accurate: she was sometimes criticised for being too kind to her subjects, glossing over blemishes and glamorising their features a little. Well, she wouldn't be the first or last portraitist to employ a bit of judicious PhotoShopping. Painful honesty is all very commendable, but it doesn't pay the bills!

She travelled to Paris in 1721, where she painted Watteau and received so many commissions that her sisters helped her to execute them. She was the first foreign woman to be admitted to the French Academy and in the same year she was elected to the Italian one as well.

She visited Vienna, Modena, Parma and Poland, garnering enthusiastic acclaim and being feted by royalty. At the Court of Poland, she gave lessons to the Queen. The Polish King Augustus III was one of the most ardent admirers of her work and she refused several times to become the full-time Court painter. In the event, the king acquired hundreds of her pictures.

King Augstus III of Poland is an old friend of ours at WAS. (You can refresh your memory about him if you have kept your back numbers of the erstwhile WASP, or you can check the blog archive.

We knew him when he was still Crown Prince Frederick Augustus of Saxony: his magnificent portrait by Nicolas de Largillierre hangs in the NGV. He was the first owner of our very own Tiepolo Cleopatra but through unfortunate circumstances (unfortunate for him, but very fortunate for us!) Cleopatra slipped through his fingers and eventually came to rest on the walls of the NGV. Where you can see both of them, free of charge, any time you like.

Crown Prince Frederick Augustus and his father, Augustus the Strong, between them amassed over 800 magnificent paintings, which form the nucleus of the collection at the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in Dresden. Their collection includes major works by the entire First Team of Old Masters, and of course the unrivalled collection of Carrieras.

Rosalba Carriera, attractive, intelligent and successful, had many suitors, but unlike her sisters, she never married. In later life her eyesight deteriorated, perhaps as a result of the years of miniature work, until she was completely blind. She outlived her entire family and died in Venice at the age of 82.

Taking Refuge On The Couch

School holidays are upon us again and a nasty rash of Kiddieflicks has broken out at the cinema. The only remedy is to stock up on DVDs and retire to the couch.

I have discovered a very entertaining series called "Landmarks of Western Art". It comprises six DVDs ranging from art in the late Medieval world to Impressionism and Post-Impressionism.

I have chosen to watch The Baroque first, having a soft spot for all those diagonals and curves and dramatically lit moments of passion - a nice change after the cool, classic restraint of the Renaissance, but not yet refined to the charming "prettiness" of the Rococo.

I don't mean to denigrate the rococo style; all those floral flourishes and Mozart-like twirly bits are lovely. But today I am in a Baroque mood.

The artworks under discussion are beautifully photographed and the pundits know their baroque onions. They have a few interesting theories of their own to advance and the commentary is engaging, but why the producers saw fit to choose two commentators who both lithp, is beyond me. Surely there are art historians without speech impediments that they could have employed? Maybe perfect diction is an expensive optional extra.

The DVD covers the architecture and sculpture of the era as well as the painting - I liked the part about the arch-rivals Borromini and Bernini. Borromini's gorgeous church of St Agnes in Rome out-baroques the baroque - is there room for one more curlicue?

Bernini's buildings blur the lines between architecture and sculpture with his wonderful high reliefs. His major sculpture, the Ecstasy of St Teresa, has to be up there in the Top Ten with Donatello's David and Michelangelo's Pieta.

Art historian Tim Martin is more restrained in his analysis of St Teresa's writhing ecstasy than Simon Schama, who, in his series "The Power of Art", implies that Teresa is doing her Meg Ryan impression. Well, maybe he's right: the angel above her looks smug enough. Bernini was by all accounts a bit of a lad and that is a facial expression with which he would be familiar!

We then move on to Caravaggio, master of the art of dramatic lighting. Had he been born four centuries later, he would have made his mark as a film noir director. From Italy and Caravaggio, it is a natural segue to Spain and Velasquez, who took Carvaggio as his inspiration.

We check out Poussin and Claude Lorrain in France, then on to the Netherlands: Hals, Rembrandt, Rubens and Vermeer.

An entertaining and informative program, with lovely pictures. I was sorry when it ended, but I had the Couch-over-Cinema advantage of being able to go back and have another look at the best bits.

Another advantage of the couch over the cinema, is that you can have Interval. The Dutch call it Pauze: in Holland they stop the movie in mid-sentence exactly halfway through, flash PAUZE on the screen in big friendly letters and everyone goes out to eat ice cream and smoke horrid little black cigars. In my house we spend the Pauze making tea and visiting the bathroom.

Back on the couch, I slip Matisse/Picasso into the player.

This is an engrossing film by Philippe Kohly about these two giants of modern art. I think of them as the Warne and McGrath of the art world: each a genius at what they do, but in different ways; two very different temperaments who complement each other. Matisse chose to paint the beauty of the world and ignore things that would disturb the viewer, while Picasso wanted his art to grab the viewer by the throat and make him look at the reality of the world we live in.

Picasso once said: "You have to be able to picture side by side everything Matisse and I were doing. No one has ever looked at Matisse's painting more carefully than I; and no one has looked at mine more carefully than he."

In spite of their initial rivalry and their very different temperaments, each came to acknowledge the other as his only true equal. They developed a close and complex relationship.

With archive footage and photos and a wealth of examples of their work, the documentary traces the separate paths Matisse and Picasso followed, looks at their points of contact, and sheds light on how the genius of each artist nourished that of the other.

The contributors to the film are all people who knew the artists well and it gives a fascinating insight into their friendship and how each influenced the other's work.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

The Couch Potato as Art Lover

School holidays. A surfeit of kiddieflicks at the movies and nothing on TV until the ratings start again. It was for just such an emergency that Warren Lieberfarb unleashed the DVD player upon the world in 1996. He didn't invent it, he just threw the party where it was introduced to Wall Street types, Hollywood bigwigs and the investment community. Good on him and on Mrs Lieberfarb who no doubt slaved for days over the canapés.

The upshot is that we can now watch DVDs of our own choice when the local entertainment industry lets us down. And what better to watch than some of the many lovely series on art and artists that are available to borrow at your library or to buy if you want to keep them. Get online while the Ausdollar is hot!

Outstanding among these is the BBC series "The Private Life of a Masterpiece", comprising 22 45-minute episodes, each dealing with one important work of painting or sculpture. It shows the development of each work and what happened to it after it was created. The narrators are all experts from various great art galleries.

I found the episode about Degas' "Little Dancer" and the early years of the Paris Opera Ballet particularly interesting.

The series also gives a good overview of other works by each artist, great historical background to put the work in context, and demonstrations of the working process of the artist. This series is amazingly addictive because of its easy, casual narrative, brimming with tons of fascinating information.

I recently caught a few episodes of David Dimbleby's "Seven Ages of Britain" on the ABC, and borrowed the box set from the library so that I could watch them all. In this series, Dimbleby charts the history of Britian through its greatest art and artifacts, ranging from paintings and sculpture to jewels, religious relics, weapons, scientific instruments, architecture and fashion. The treasures are beautiful and the stories are fascinating.

From the charming and erudite Simon Schama comes "The Power of Art", in which he focuses on eight iconic works of art. Schama's premise is that, whereas plenty of great art was created in serenity, some masterpieces were made under acute stress: the artist struggling with the integrity of the conception and realisation of his work. In each episode, a great artist is facing an emotional crisis and uses his creativity to relieve the pressure.

Simon Schama places each work in the context of the artist's life and of the political and social mores of his time. He combines dramatic reconstruction and brilliant photography to give us a sense of the turmoil in which these great works were conceived and created.

Some of the featured artists are, as one would expect, the ones with turbulent lives: Caravaggio, Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Picasso … but I found the episodes about Bellini and Rothko in particular, fascinating because I know less about them and the way they work.

Schama's interpretation of Bellini's "Ecstasy of St. Teresa" and Rothko's huge blocks of colour made me look at the works with a better insight into what the artists were trying to convey.

The works that Schama chooses are not necessarily the most famous or the best known by each artist: Van Gogh's "Wheatfield with Crows", rather than the sunflowers or a self-portrait; Rembrandt's "Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis" rather than the "Night Watch" … it is interesting to go down a track a bit different from the well-trodden one.

Then there is the delightful Sister Wendy, who has narrated several art history series for PBS and the BBC. She is very knowledgable and her enthusiasm is infectious. Her commentary is more superficial than that of the experts on the previously mentioned series, but her interpretation of the artists' intentions is always interesting and original.

She sometimes says very amusing yet slightly mischievous things, in her naïve way … Wikipedia claims that she became a consecrated virgin by Papal Decree in 1970, but one has to wonder if she is really as innocent as she appears!

Friday, 24 June 2011

Sargent's Children

John Singer Sargent is mainly famous for his portraits - the beautiful Lady Agnew and the louche Madame X spring immediately to mind when his name is mentioned. Far more interesting to me are his paintings of children: in particular the Pailleron siblings, the daughters of Edward Darley Boit and the two Barnard girls lighting lanterns in their garden.

Sargent's children are not sentimental or naively charming. He depicted them as individuals, to be accepted as unique and independent personalities, eschewing the usual conventions of expressing their innocence and purity.Above all, his children are not "cute", like Millais' "Cherry Ripe" and "Bubbles", nor indeed like any of Renoir's lovely children.

"Portrait of Edouard and Marie-Louise Pailleron" was painted in 1881, in their Paris apartment. Sargent, an expatriate American, spent much of his life in Paris and only moved his studio to London after the "Madame X" scandal. But that is another story.

The Pailleron children evince no childish appeal - they look haughtily at the viewer. They display no signs of affection or awareness of each other: it is almost as if Sargent painted two portraits on the same canvas rather that a double portrait of siblings. Marie-Louise is entirely self-possessed and looks almost regal, seated on her pile of oriental carpets. Her father remarked that she looks like "Joan of Arc hearing the voices".

The painting was a critical success at the 1881 Salon - people found it fascinating and read different narratives into it, despite the artist's efforts at keeping it ambiguous. "The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit" shares this tendency of the viewers to read drama into it, to an even greater degree. It almost seems to me like the Rorschach Test: an essentially neutral image on which the viewer projects what is in their own psyche.

"The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit" is a very powerful image. Despite the minimal environment and the absence of "props" on which to hang a narrative, this haunting and enigmatic painting has inspired a multitude of psychological interpretations. Some even postulate that Sargent depicts in it his uncanny premonition of the girls' future spinsterhood. (None of them married.)

No surprise that many of these psychological interpretations look for sexual connotations. (Thank you, Sigmund!) I for one refuse to accept that this picture proves poor old Sargent to be a paedophile, as art historian David Lubin would have us believe! Even Sister Wendy puts a psychological spin on it, looking at the painting as "an image of children lost, isolated from one another, and homeless in their own home." The very title is not exempt: Lubin says it "suggests the possessive power of the father" and he is not alone in commenting on the absence of the mother's name.

The picture is seven foot square, a very imposing presence. It hangs in the Boston Museum of Fine Art, to which the Misses Boit donated it in 1919, together with the tall Japanese vases that now stand on either side of it. Visitors to the museum, some of whom come great distances especially to see it, spend more time with "The Daughters …" than with any of the other paintings in the collection. People respond emotionally to it: some viewers weep.

The girls are depicted in the front hall of their Paris apartment, unfurnished but for two enormous Japanese vases. The Boit family travelled back and forth across the Atlantic from Boston to spend half of each year in Paris. Amazingly, the two fragile and valuable giant vases survived at least fourteen crossings, with nothing but minimal damage to the delicate fluted rims, in the days before the miracle of bubblewrap and polystyrene chips.

The closest to a conventional portrait in the painting, is that of Julia (4), who sits in the foreground in a clear and even light. Mary Louisa (8), stands against the wall to the left, and the two older girls, Florence (12) and Jane (14), are further back, in shadow and not so clearly visible, especially Jane, who is leaning back against a vase, in profile. In the absence of other furniture, the effect of the children being dwarfed by the vases makes for a fantasy effect, evocative of Alice in Wonderland drinking the potion that made her shrink.

The asymmetrical placement of the figures is nevertheless carefully balanced by Sargent's use of light and shade, and of patterns and shapes. The bright figure of Mary Louisa on the left is balanced by the vase and red screen on the right, Julia on her carpet is anchored by the bright reflection of the window in the mirror at the back, and acts as a counterweight to the figures of the two older sisters in the middle distance.

Sargent prided himself on his technical ability with white-on-white, and in this picture he pulls out all the stops, unerringly painting the modulations of all the gradations of light on the starched white pinafores.

Sargent knocked off this picture in only 45 days, and first exhibited it at the Petit Gallery, where its unconventional appearance received mixed reviews. He then exhibited it at the Paris Salon in 1883, with the same result. It was not well received in London, the following year. British viewers considered it "beastly French" and voted it the worst painting of the year in a newspaper poll.

French and English aesthetic standards differed vastly, and Sargent decided to establish himself in London by creating a work that was more acceptable to the English taste. It was important to him to establish himself in London as he had rather burnt his boats in Paris over the scandalous "Madame X" thing.

Sargent achieved his object in spectacular fashion with Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, a portrait of Polly and Dolly Barnard. (Honestly - some parents!) Children in a traditional English garden, none of that beastly dark French interior nonsense: London loved it.

Did they not notice how similar it is to the despised "Daughters of EDB"? The ambiguity of scale - the tall lilies, like the vases in "Daughters", tower over the girls; both are studies of light: reflections and half-lights in a French interior, twilight and lamplight in a garden; in both the portraits are secondary to the composition; the girls in both are dressed in white and are posed asymmetrically.

Erica Hirshler calls it "a translation of his portrait of the Boit girls from a French vocabulary into English terms."

I have only been able to scratch the surface of this fascinating subject, but I can highly recommend "Sargent's Daughters" by Erica E Hirshler, from which I gleaned a lot of my information. It is available for loan at the Whitehorse Manningham Libraries.